As protests across the country continue to plague construction of Coastal GasLink’s (CGL) pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory, about 200 supporters of the project gathered in Houston Wednesday afternoon to hear from Indigenous leaders eager to see the pipeline completed.
The event, which hosted five speakers, was organized by The North Matters, a natural resource industry lobby group.
“The protesters get one side of the story, and they want to stand up with their fists in the air,” Robert Skin, an elected councillor for the Skin Tyee Nation, which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. “Come and listen to us. Get both sides of the story before you go out and stop traffic and stop the rail line. All you’re doing is alienating people who are trying to put a roof over their children’s heads and food on their table.”
Skin praised CGL for its consultation with elders and leaders, saying the company went on numerous interpretive walks through the nation’s traditional territory to map out the best possible route for the pipeline.
Nationwide protests and blockades of rail lines followed a move by RCMP to enforce a court injunction earlier this month against the hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who had been obstructing an access road to the CGL’s work site.
Four of the five Hereditary chiefs flew to Ontario Wednesday to thank Mohawk supporters blocking key rail lines.
Spokesperson for The North Matters, Steve Simons, said his group organized the event at Houston’s Pleasant Valley Plaza Theatre because national attention has focused largely on opposition to the pipeline, while the voices of many Wet’suwet’en members who support the project have been drowned out by negative news coverage, fracturing communities down racial lines across the Northwest.
Wednesday’s gathering was billed as an event to bring the community together by allowing Indigenous members in support of the project the chance to share their perspectives in a safe environment, free from intimidation and fear of harm.
Skin commended CGL for its ecological and cultural sensitivity and said his nation’s benefit agreement with the company is key to the prosperity of future generations. Some of the money has already been used for professional training among members. More has been earmarked to help alleviate a housing crisis and allow more members to move back to their community, Skin said.
“Instead of saying ‘no’ to everybody all the time, now we can say ‘yes, we have the money for housing. Yes, we have the money for education’.”
The North Matters organized the session over the long weekend, to which Simons said he was pleased at the number of people who came out, particularly because it took place in the afternoon.
“There’s been a lot of bullying going on. And intimidation. Intimidation into silence,” Simons said of what Wet’suwet’en supporters of the pipeline have faced through social media and other means.
“What we wanted was a place where people could speak without fear of a backlash.”
A Victoria resident and mostly now retired but who does offer courses and speaks on natural resource issues, Simons said he concentrates on trying to deescalate hard line ‘yes’ and ‘no’ positions on resource development. He volunteered his time for the North Matters event.
“What I try to do is reach out for solutions for common values,” said Simons.
Speaker Marion Tiljoe Shepherd echoed those calls for solutions.
She owns her own trucking company in Houston and is a member of the Wet’suwet’en Gilseyhu (Big Frog) clan. Her mother is a shareholder of a trap line near the pipeline route where police have twice raided protest camps.
“It’s been really hard for us,” she said to the audience. “I love my family, and my mom misses her family… but because we live here in Houston, we’re ostracized just because we want to work. We’re from an industrial town and we’ve always worked for industry. There’s two sides to every story.”
While a staunch supporter of the industry, Tiljoe Shepherd told the crowd mistakes were made on all sides, including CGL’s ineffective consultation with hereditary chiefs, and the chiefs failure to consult with their members. But she also lays a lot of blame on the protesters who mobilized around the hereditary chiefs without access to other points of view.
“Who do you think you are?” she said of the protesters. “I didn’t ask you for help. I can speak for myself.
“My choice is my choice. My husband and I have a job. We want to work for CGL; we want to work for the industry, and we have every right to.”
– with files from Rod Link